What is conspicuous consumption?
Conspicuous consumption is the purchase of goods or services for the specific purpose of displaying wealth. Conspicuous consumption is a way of showing one’s social status, especially when publicly displayed goods and services are too expensive for other members of a person’s class. This type of consumption is usually associated with the wealthy but can also apply to any economic class.
Key points to remember
- Conspicuous consumption is a term coined by the American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen.
- Conspicuous consumption can be applied to luxury goods that are easily recognizable as high-end and expensive items.
- Technology, cars, and clothing can all be examples of items related to conscious consumption.
- Conspicuous consumption is often practiced to show a specific status or social class.
- Although this type of consumption is often associated with wealthy people, anyone from any economic class can be a conspicuous consumer.
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Understanding Conspicuous Consumption
The term was coined by the American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen in his 1889 book, The leisure class theory. This type of consumption was considered a product of the developing middle class during the 19th and 20th centuries. This group had a higher percentage of disposable income to spend on goods and services that were not generally considered necessary.
Examples of conspicuous consumption and product choice
Conspicuous consumption is exemplified by the purchase of goods exclusively designed to serve as symbols of wealth, such as luxury brand labels on clothing, high-tech tools and toys, and vehicles.
Smartphones and other technologies
For example, while there are many types of premium smartphones on the market from major manufacturers, specialty smartphones created strictly as luxury items have also been produced.
All smartphones effectively offer the same basic communication features, with software and apps installed on them, providing plenty of functionality. However, designer smartphones are available from luxury brands such as Bentley and Lamborghini. The hardware of the phones will almost always be the best available, but what often sets these smartphones apart are the outer casings, which can be leather, titanium, or even granite. The infamous $15 million Black Diamond iPhone was just a high-end iPhone 5 covered in gold, encrusted with gems and featuring a black diamond.
The same could be said of limited-edition high-performance supercars built for speed and visual appeal, but which have little practical use. These vehicles, from manufacturers such as McLaren Automotive and Bugatti Automobiles, are produced in small batches and easily cost over $1 million each.
Supercar top speeds generally cannot be reached safely or legally on most roads. Ownership of these vehicles can be an expression of conspicuous consumption, as the full capabilities of supercars can rarely be experienced even by the owner.
One could argue that making such a purchase comes with some assurance that the user will have the best device available in their possession. However, much cheaper versions of the same device are also on the market. The purchase of such products is primarily intended to spark a conversation around its acquisition and the fact that the owner could afford to make such an extravagant purchase.